Ski instructor course 9: The thrill of speed skiing

Meet Philippe May, a speed skier who has reached the truly terrifying velocity of 250 kilometres per hour.

Photo by Tracie Max Sachs

Picture yourself breaking the speed limit on the motorway. Now imagine doing double that speed on skis. Scary?

Such is the sport of speed skiing, practised on a specially prepared and extremely steep slope. Only five of its devotees worldwide have reached a speed of 250kph (155.34mph) – and one of them is Philippe May, who last season became director of the Swiss Ski School in Verbier.

Prospective students need not worry, however. “Sometimes when I am teaching clients they recognise me,” says Philippe, “and they say – ‘ooh, please don’t make us ski fast!’” He reassures them, though, that speed skiing isn’t on the syllabus.

Amateurs can, however, have a go at competing in the sport – on the same track that will stage the World Championship in 2011, as well as this season’s FIS World Cup Final (April 19-22, 2010), high on the glacier on Mont-Fort. The preceding weekend, April 17-18, members of the public are invited to enter the so-called Pop KL.

“Any good skier can do it,” says Philippe. “And people get addicted; it’s amazing to see how excited they get.” Some recreational skiers get as fast as 93mph (150kph) – “a very acceptable speed,” according to Philippe.

Philippe’s personal record, however, is precisely 250kph – only 1.4kph (less than 1mph) slower than the world record. He had the advantage of growing up in a village just down the mountain, taking to skis at the age of three. After a spell as a drummer, touring with a heavy metal band, and a career as a carpenter, Philippe devoted himself to speed skiing. In 2002 he became the FIS World Champion, and in 2007 Pro World Champion. Now 39 years old, the pony-tailed racer has remained in the top three for the past seven consecutive years.

What does speed skiing feel like? “It’s between skiing and flying,” says Philippe. “The air resistance is enormous. Think what it is like when you put your hand out of the car window when you are driving on the freeway at 120 [kph]. Then double the speed and take away the car.”

Photo by Tracie Max Sachs

Unlike Formula 1 cars, speed skiers are not allowed any aerodynamic gimmicks to keep them on the ground: “the only spoiler is your body,” says Philippe. However, speed skiers regularly take big air: even the most carefully groomed piste has undulations. “It’s not flat, it’s a mountain, and it’s alive – so the track feels as if it has waves.” A slight drop in pitch, says Philippe, can send you airborne for 70 metres.

At this speed, the slightest movement of air can have devastating consequences – as Philippe found out at an event at the Italian resort of Cervinia in 2003. “At high speed you don’t weigh anything,” says Philippe. A slight gust of wind blew him off the track. He shot through the netting – “I weigh 85kg, and when I went through the net at 160kph, it didn’t even slow me down” – and broke seven ribs and a shoulder blade. “It wasn’t nice,” says Philippe.

Breakages are not the commonest injury among speed skiers, however. When they fall, they usually just slide down the track. “The suits we wear are 100 per cent windproof, it’s like wearing a plastic bag – so you never slow down.” The result: third-degree burns, from friction with the snow.

Right now I have no intention of trying speed skiing. The reason I have met Philippe is because as part of my course to train as a ski instructor, I will spend the next few days “shadowing” classes of the Swiss Ski School in Verbier. My maximum speed is likely to be about 1 per cent of Philippe’s, as I snowplough alongside children on the beginner slopes.

In the meantime, we would-be instructors have continued with our personal technique training. My own group has a new instructor this week: Tom Goldney, who has us practising our carving, whizzing down the slopes leaving as clean and crisp a pair of parallel tracks as we can, like an indecisive railway line. It isn’t speed skiing, but it’s pretty much the technique you’d use in fast giant slalom; and the thrill of gliding over the slopes, swinging from one curve to the next, leaves a huge grin on our faces.

I am curious to test my speed, though, and after training one day tackle the Mini KL, a track with an automatic self-timer. It isn’t steep, but it’s a smooth run where you can get into a tuck, keep your skis as flat as you can, and enjoy the feeling of slicing through the air, the snow rushing past in a blur.

It feels enjoyably fast; at a push, I can imagine skiing at double the speed – on a brave day. I look at the electronic timer: it says 51.3kph. That’s one fifth of Philippe’s top speed. I make a mental note to sign up for the Pop KL – on the sidelines, as a volunteer.

Entry to the Pop KL costs CHF 100 per person per run; details at